The tiny town of Mathinna, in Tasmania’s north-east hill country, was the unlikely crucible for one of Australia’s most bold, impactful and important contemporary artists.
Graeme Murphy was born in Melbourne and raised in the rural outpost that was a shadow of its heady gold rush heyday when it hosted several pubs, although still big enough to support a school and the ubiquitous Coronation Hall, complete with picture of the Queen.
Today, when Murphy invokes the Mathinna of his childhood, he speaks with deep fondness. His parents were the two local teachers, and his mother Betty, an accomplished pianist, was at the heart of every major event in the district. Murphy describes her as the life of the party, who played for every wedding, funeral, barn dance, or meet and greet. He recalls his time in the remote country as “idyllic, endless backyards of forest, and bushwalking with dad to waterfalls that were just magical”.
He marvels at how his intrepid parents drove countless hours along dirt roads and over flooded rivers to get him to dance classes.
Murphy has travelled a wide and worldly arc from the Mathinna’s Coronation Hall and Kenneth Gillespie’s Tasmanian Ballet School in Launceston to become Australia’s most esteemed choreographer. For 40 years, Murphy has comprised one half of a dynamic creative partnership with his life and dance partner, Janet Vernon. The pair is sought out by ballet and opera companies the world over and, together, they are to dance what Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge were to opera.
Since joining the Australian Ballet at age 17, Murphy has amassed a long list of credits with the world’s most prestigious and recognisable outfits, including Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in London and Ballets Félix Blaska in France. Yet, it is as choreographer and artistic director that he has made his greatest impact, nurturing a fledgling ensemble in 1976 – The Dance Company (New South Wales) – to become the bold and beloved Sydney Dance Company.
Murphy has worked with a roll-call of arts megastars, from Placido Domingo at The Met in 1996 when he was engaged to choreograph Saint-Seans’ opera Samson et Delilah, to Mikhail Baryshnikov in Embodied, ice-skaters Torvill and Dean, and Li Cunxin when he choreographed the movement for the biopic Mao’s Last Dancer. This is naming just a very few.
Amongst the it-crowd of eminent performers with whom Murphy has worked, clearly one looms largest, Janet Vernon, whom he met in the embryonic days of his choreographic career. They form a powerful pair, as the movement that Graeme manifests is affirmed, developed and communicated to the dancers by Janet in an integral part of the creative process.
Murphy’s stature as a dance genius is belied — or quite likely explained — by his boyish and contagious enthusiasm. It offers clues as to how he has literally danced his way through a career that has led him from the corps de ballet of Australia’s national company, The Australian Ballet, to become our foremost contemporary choreographer. He has won over the luminaries of classical ballet, including Dame Margaret Scott, of The Australian Ballet School, who reportedly described him as “a skinny boy from Tasmania with not much training but a lot of magic”, and Dame Peggy van Praagh who, when Murphy was simultaneously offered jobs in Sydney and Western Australia, dryly advised that he go to Perth so that no-one would see his mistakes (an offer he declined).
Murphy’s charm has variously enabled him to coax his Mathinna schoolgirl classmates into carrying him around the playground on their shoulders while he did the splits, and to convince Julia Moon, general director of the Universal Ballet in South Korea, that the classic 1841 ballet Giselle, which is generally considered the “one sacred work”, should be allowed a contemporary facelift.
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These powers of persuasion become a critical element in the collaborations between Graeme Murphy, Janet Vernon and Tasmania’s own Mature Artists Dance Experience (MADE).
MADE was conceived in 2005 when Tasmanian dancer Glen Murray (another Kenneth Gillespie Ballet School alumni) returned after dancing with the Sydney Dance Company. Murray wished to teach and choreograph with artists who did not fit the usual performing dancer profile.
One such person was Shirley Gibson, who had danced across all forms since she began as a small child to remedy her pigeon feet. Like so many vibrant artistic initiatives, 15 years on, MADE runs on the smell of an oily rag, driven by the energy and good will of its participants, instructors and production teams.
The collaboration with Australia’s contemporary dance royal couple came about when Shirley Gibson cold-called Murphy and Vernon to ask if they would be interested in working with a group of mature women of varied abilities.
“I was very nervous,” said Gibson, “but Graeme just said yes. However, he said we would have to wait a few years as he had several jobs lined up and he would have to finish them first.”
They waited until their turn came, in 2016, and then embarked on a creative journey.
“Choreographically, I treat people as individuals and look to what I can extract from within their DNA and their psyche,” Murphy said.
“Janet and I started pushing with rhythmic, complex things that were actually hard … I pushed them physically just to see when they squeaked, to see their grit and determination. And then I got over testing them because I found them fascinating. I started exploring.”
In a MADE, show the cast is predominately women, all more than 50 years old and are of varying shapes and sizes, some with ripped calves and buff biceps, others with softer wings and chins. They offer their many stories, one for nearly every woman on stage, united by the thread of the narrative told through contemporary dance, a well-chosen soundtrack and the ever-important artful lighting design.
While the performers may not look like the athletes usually presented on ballet playbills, their dexterity is evident, as is the ability to take the audience on a journey. These women could be your best friend’s mum, your doctor, or the lady at the post office, but in performance they all share the confidence of dancers who know their craft and delight in what they can do with their bodies.
For Murphy, the real thrill of the arts — especially in dance and opera — lies in that ability to tell stories, and with MADE there were plenty to share. “Some had dance training and some had had folk training, but what they all had was life experience and that was the thing that I really wanted to tap into,” he said.
The ensemble worked with Vernon and Murphy to develop the production of The Frock, in which the personal ingredients of the dancers’ lives became the stories in the show, exploring the diverse stages of women’s lives: risky teenage behaviour, falling in love, baby-raising, loss, growing old. In this work, the story telling is led by the device of “the frock”, which is a mechanical dress-makers dummy moving about the stage and complementing the movement of the dancers, overlaid with a narrative voiced by Murphy.
He said of the experience, “MADE has done some very obscure and fascinating works, but this concept of the 60-minute story-telling work really tapped an emotional journey. I just loved the experience.”
For the dancers, it was an extraordinary journey, culminating in performances across Tasmania in the 2017 Ten Days on the Island festival. In 2018, MADE, along with Murphy, Vernon and a loyal crew, toured their production to the World Gold Theatre Festival in Saitama, Japan, which celebrates older artists from around the world.
An important part of The Frock is the dialogue, about which Shirley Gibson was concerned. “At first we did not know if the Japanese audience would get the sense of humour because it is so Australian, but in the question and answer session afterwards it was clear they did — there was laughter and tears.”
For Murphy, there was no barrier to understanding, but for a man whose medium is movement, he was forced well out of his comfort zone. “I am forever grateful to MADE because they taught me how to write characters, and that pushed me into that area that I had never thought about. I always spurned the written word because dance is a silent art form — my quote is ‘dance is truth, mute but absolute’. And I had to rethink that, because words were really beautiful for me to use in this work.”
Murphy’s new foray into words resulted in a poem, But Still I Fly, revealing that even those with enviable physical capacity must contend with effects of aging. Things that the MADE dancers work to keep both in perspective, and in their place.
The Frock was met with acclaim, across Tasmania and over the Pacific.
‘I think we have to keep using that journey from the eye, into the brain, into the heart and keep people mentally and emotionally engaged. Make them see themselves up on stage, invite them to dance with you.’
‘Opening night in Japan was equally important to me as working in an opera at The Met. For me, it was crucial and wonderful: it wasn’t The Met and there weren’t 5000 people in the audience, but it was as exhilarating. Perhaps more, because I thought this was something that is speaking to an audience who already have great respect for older people.’
‘It was making those dancers in MADE feel part of a global dance movement, which they are.’
Murphy has long operated in the elite world of technically proficient dancers and opera performers, all of whom are experts in stagecraft, and he rates working with MADE as a highlight of his career.
Murphy’s creations belong to the dancers with whom it is made, and in the case of The Frock, it was that Tasmanian cast.
‘You don’t sit on a work and let it do all the work.’ We are planning on working together again, and I am nervous about how will I find a way that grows them, keeps me engaged, progresses the art form.
The message is this: these are unique works which can rarely be repeated, so don’t miss out on the ephemeral magic of what will next be MADE.
But Still I Fly
By Graeme Murphy
My body speaks in broken tongues
My breath pumps dusty limpid lungs
But still I fly
My fingers float past tired eyes
As beautiful as crooked lies
They once could tiny needles thread
But now ask questions of the dead
But still I fly
Slack wings hung low from brittle bones
Beat empty air raise naught but groans
My waist once hourglass sadly is
Become a plump parenthesis
Which holds two exclamation marks
My breasts descending meadow larks
But still I fly
My rump more ifs than butt
Now lava lamp goo oozing lazily to
Two knees that scream for oil
A foot that throbs and one that sighs
A litany of floppy thighs dance on
Long after music dies
But still I fly
I roll and fold and sculpt as art
Each delinquent body part
Then seek a syntax to explain
The strange sad poem I became
But still I fly